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Wednesday, August 3, 2005

The Power of the Jury System

I found a most interesting article at Fox News today. Justice Often Served By Jury Nullification, by Radley Balko. A few key points:
In his 1998 book "Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine," Clay S. Conrad defines "jury nullification" this way: "Jurors in criminal trials have the right to refuse to convict if they believe that a conviction would be in some way unjust."

The doctrine of jury nullification rests on two truths about the American criminal justice system: (1) Jurors can never be punished for the verdict they return, and (2) Defendants cannot be retried once a jury has found them not guilty, regardless of the jury's reasoning. So the juries in both the Rosenthal and Paey cases could have returned a "not guilty" verdict, even though Paey and Rosenthal were undoubtedly guilty of the charges against them.

This may sound radical, perhaps even subversive, but jury nullification serves as an important safeguard against unjust laws, as well as against the unfair application of well-intended laws. It's also steeped in American and British legal tradition.

A common question I get from people disturbed by these kinds of cases is, "What can we do?" Well, here's one thing the average citizen can do: Serve when you're called to jury duty, and while there, refuse to enforce unjust laws. If a defendant is guilty of harming someone else, certainly, throw the book at him. But if he's guilty of violating a bad law, or if you feel the law has been unjustly applied to him, by all eans, come back with "not guilty," no matter what the judge, the prosecutor, or the evidence says.

Not only is this your right as a juror, some would say it's your obligation.
Most of us view Jury Duty as an horrid inconvenience and intrusion on our lives. Perhaps if people could be reminded just how powerful the institution of the Jury is, it might change their minds. The most disheartening complaint I hear when discussing politics or government is that people feel powerless, like their opinion or vote really holds no weight. This is unfortunately true in some ways. However, the American Citizen can wield enormous power in the voting booth and the Jury Room.

I would venture to say that most of us are ignorant of the legal concept of "Jury Nullification." A few bits and pieces from Wikipedia:
  1. The use of the jury to act as a protection of last-resort was espoused by many of the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

    For example, John Adams said of jurors: "It is not only his right but his duty...to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court."
  2. Advocacy groups such as the Fully Informed Jury Association work to inform potential jurors of their rights, and lobby for changes in the law requiring that judges properly inform jurors of their rights.

Just another reason that it is important to understand our rights and duties as citizens a republic, we hold more power than we realize.

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